When Tyler Neasloney went viral, his social media mentions were impossible to keep up with. But he was already focused on designing his newest project: A $35 tee shirt, with proceeds from its sale directed in part to the Ali Forney Center, a nonprofit based in New York dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ homeless youth. The garment’s message? “Not even to dinner with the Kushners?” — the very question that earned the 29-year-old instant digital notoriety when he posed it to Project Runway judge Karlie Kloss on an episode that aired January 2.
Contestants on the rebooted hit show had been tasked with using clothing from a Goodwill to make an outfit Kloss could wear to a CFDA event in Paris; Neasloney’s black skirt and white halter top combo wasn’t impressive enough for the judges, including the luxury womenswear designer Brandon Maxwell, who said he couldn’t see the model wearing the outfit “anywhere.” That’s when Neasloney referenced Kloss’s husband — she’s married to tech investor Joshua Kushner. But social media read even more into the line, give that Joshua’s brother is Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and one of his top advisors.
Neasloney was eliminated from the competition later that episode and has since doubled down that he has “a lot of respect” for Kloss — the quip was born out of feeling a sense of friendliness with the judges, who also include Elle editor in chief Nina Garcia and More Than Enough author and former Teen Vogue editor in chief Elaine Welteroth. (For her part, Kloss wished him “all the best” on Twitter.) The clip was viewed millions of times on Twitter alone, and it was a “no-brainer” for Neasloney, who works on events and communications at the Ali Forney Center, to redirect the attention for good.
Enter the tee shirts, which he unveiled last week on Instagram. He tells MTV News that the garment is “not my specialty — I do luxury womenswear and luggage, and for the past year I’ve been primarily a bespoke designer.” Neasloney concedes that he wasn’t trying to reinvent one of the most ubiquitous articles of clothing. Instead, he focused on the design, which featured his infamous question spaced out in white script on a black tee: One shirt featured one word per line and another resembled a vision test. The shirts were available in sizes up to 2XL, though when a few people DMed him about 3XL options, Neasloney fulfilled those asks as well. They sold out within a day; 50 percent of the proceeds go to the Ali Forney Center.
“The message on the shirts really speaks for itself, however people take that message,” he notes. While he says he initially posed the question because he felt like he could be himself around the Runway judges, viewers have been divided about its intent. “Regardless of if I respond or if I don’t respond, people are going to find the meaning they want to find in what the moment was on the show,” he says. Rather than attempting to shift the narrative in his favor, he’s trying to funnel the interest, and the outrage, to help the young people with whom the Ali Forney Center works. Their struggles, he points out, are “really life-or-death.”
The Ali Forney Center was named after someone from the very community the Center seeks to help: Forney, a gender noncomforming Black teenager, spent the latter part of his life advocating for LGBTQ+ homeless teens. (Per the Human Rights Campaign, LGBTQ+ young people are 120 percent more at risk to become homeless than their straight, cisgender peers.) He was killed in Harlem in 1997, at the age of 22. The Ali Forney Center was founded in 2002 and helps hundreds of LGBTQ+ young people a year — and Neasloney stresses that, even with his newfound notoriety, he’s not giving up his day job any time soon.
“It’s difficult for me to separate myself from this organization because I’m so invested in the mission,” he says. The young people he works with have often endured a tremendous amount of trauma, Neosloney points out, but they also look for joy and ways to shine as their truest selves. “They want to express their identities to live in a way that makes them feel authentic,” he adds, “and it’s really special to watch them use fashion to affirm themselves. Whether it’s wearing a dress, or heels, or pants, or a chest binder, fashion can really make or break a person’s psychological state. And it might not be a shirt that has an overt political message on it, but the mere fact that they are able to wear clothing that is affirming to their gender is a huge political statement in itself.”
Neasloney first experienced the political power of fashion for himself when he “slipped into a pair of heels.” He used the sewing skills his mom taught him to begin crafting drag ensembles for himself, and later, his clients, who now include Ali Forney Center board member and performer Marti Gould Cummings. He points out that drag itself is a political act, but adds that, “as a queer person in Donald Trump’s America, my very existence is political. And fashion is a singular way to assert your political identity without ever saying a word.”
The history of fashion as a political tool is long and storied. From people wearing red chokers during the French Revolution in remembrance of those who were killed by the guillotine to Congresswomen wearing white in 2019 to honor the suffragettes who paved the way for their successes to Lebron James and Kyrie Irving’s “I Can’t Breathe” tees, which protested the police brutality that killed Eric Garner, fashion has the power to further a conversation in powerful ways. That’s why the comments on Neasloney’s posts telling him to “keep politics out of fashion” are the ones that bother him most. “It’s that sort of complacency that really leads to problems in politics and democracy and in life as a whole.”
He says he hopes, in the next year, the fashion world uphold their political and humanitarian values through their designs. “Stay engaged, make the controversial clothing, make the shirts that are thought-provoking, make the designs that really get people talking,” he says. “I think in an election year, the most important thing that we can do, besides voting, is talking openly about often about every issue that’s on the table.” For him, that meant modeling each item of clothing in his new collection, which debuted earlier this month. “I really went back and forth on that because my target market for this line is clients who identify as women, and it’s easy to turn someone off by being in drag,” he says. Ultimately, he decided to take the plunge. “But people really need to get on board with the death of the gender binary.”
As for Project Runway, Neasloney has few regrets. “I’ll be honest, it did feel a little premature when I hit ‘send’ on the application, but I think all things considered, the timing was right,” he says. He points to being paired with DD Smith, the show’s first nonbinary model, as a sign that his involvement in season 18 was successful because it came at the proper moment. “While the pressure can really take a toll, it was a really special experience and an honor to be part of the small group of people who have ever gone through this.”
For now, he’s splitting his time between working at the Ali Forney Center and growing his burgeoning business, which he stresses is inherently sustainable and size-inclusive. He’ll continue to push the envelope — with his designs, his drag, and by virtue of living his life. “The beauty of fashion and politics is you can find whatever you want to find in it,” he adds. That also includes finding yourself.